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Hilton’s Jonathan Witter: “The future of hospitality has to feel customized and personal”

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

As a part of my seres about the future of travel, I had the pleasure to interview Jonathan (Jon) Witter. Jonathan (Jon) is Chief Customer Officer of Hilton. In this role, Jon ensures the innovation, design, marketing and delivery of distinctive, consistent, high quality, branded experiences that delight customers and drive superior returns to Hilton and its owners. Jon oversees the global Brands, Marketing, Loyalty & Partnerships, Hilton Reservations & Customer Care, Technology and Strategy teams. Prior to Hilton, Jon served in a number of senior roles where he specialized in transforming the operational and strategic models of businesses undergoing significant customer-, technology- or market-driven disruption. Most recently, Jon served as President of the Retail and Direct Banking divisions of Capital One Bank during its transition from a traditional local branch-based bank to a national marketing- and technology-led challenger business. He was responsible for $3.1 billion in revenues, 13,500 associates and 10 million customers. Prior to Capital One, Jon served as Managing Director and President of Morgan Stanley Private Bank NA and Chief Operating Officer of Morgan Stanley’s Retail Banking Group. Immediately following the Great Recession, and during a period when the company was acutely focused on expanding its retail banking businesses, Jon was accountable for the strategic direction and overall success of the business. Jon provided day-to-day leadership over product management, mortgage, information technology, operations and CRA. In the early days of the digital revolution, Jon served as EVP and Head of General Bank Distribution at Wachovia Bank. In this role, Jon helped implement Wachovia’s vision of designing and delivering a true multichannel experience for customers. Jon led many of the bank’s distribution channels (phone, ATM, Internet) and the deposit and retail credit product teams that managed product features, functionality, services and profitability. He also led the company’s branch and network management function, playing a major role in new market entries in Texas and California. Prior to Wachovia, Jon served in a number of roles with McKinsey & Co, Applied Predictive Technologies and Deloitte & Touche. Jon received an M.B.A. from the Wharton School of Business, where he was a Palmer Scholar. He received his B.A. magna cum laude in Economics from Vanderbilt University. Jon recently served as Chairman for the Washington Corporate Council of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as a member of the Board of Directors for Goodwill of Greater Washington, and as a board member of the Economic Club of Washington D.C. He resides in Washington, D.C. with his family.

Thank you so much for joining us Jon! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Having started my career in consulting before spending many years in the banking industry, my arrival in hospitality probably seems unexpected — though in reality, it actually makes a lot of sense. During my banking career, I specialized in building, growing and transforming traditional operating models in the face of significant industry disruption. Most recently, I was President of the Retail and Direct Banking divisions of Capital One Bank during its transition from a traditional branch-based bank to a national marketing- and digitally-enabled business — a shift that is not too dissimilar to what’s happening in hospitality.

When the opportunity presented itself to join Hilton, I had two thoughts. First: this is an industry that is at an incredible crossroads and Hilton — the company that defined hospitality as we know it — has a tremendous opportunity to determine the future of travel. And second: I have stayed in a lot of hotels across many brands, and as a frequent customer who has also made a career out of obsessing over what customers want or need, I have some suggestions for how to tackle the disruption we are seeing today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

In a past life, I was charged with building a new physical retailing concept in collaboration with experts who had great industry knowledge. Instinctively, we made many good decisions at the outset — but we knew we couldn’t (and shouldn’t) go it alone if we wanted to achieve the best possible outcome. So we made sure our process included a rigorous, iterative and common sense way of engaging with our customers so we could truly understand their needs. The result was that we co-created the concept with our customers — creating the product they wanted, and leading to a big commercial payoff for the business. If I were a betting man, I would say the product turned out about 50% as experts thought it would, 30% was largely as expected with very important nuances, and the last 20% would never have occurred to the experts but was wildly important. That kind of customer centricity, or customer-inspired innovation, is something I have aimed to replicate every day since.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

I am a big believer that we all thrive in different ways and that as leaders, it is our job to ensure we are offering the flexibility and support our teams need to be at their best every day. For me, that means carving out time every morning for a run or a cycling class — even if it requires getting an extra early start on the day, or fighting with some serious jet lag. Not only do I physically feel better and more energized when I start my day with a workout, I have also found that some of my best ideas come when there’s nothing to distract me but the open road. With my kids getting closer to college age, I also make sure I build in quality time with them while they are still at home — whether that’s an NFL football game with my son (Go Panthers!), or checking off another destination from our family’s 50-state, 7-continent bucket list (we’re at 35 states and 4 continents). But like I said, it’s different for everyone — the only way to avoid burn out is to know what’s important for you, and to work with the people around you to ruthlessly prioritize. That means focusing on the points of greatest leverage, building a great team and culture, and working in a job and industry that you are passionate about.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

Innovation is a big topic — but at its core, it is about creating new sources of value for customers, inspired by customers. At Hilton, innovation starts with our physical products — the brands and hotels we offer, which are each unique in their own right. Whether you are looking for a tried and true meetings-focused hotel for an event, a resort for a family getaway or an affordable lifestyle option with an urban vibe, we are constantly striving to bring you those products in ways that are valuable for you.

Beyond the physical product, we are also innovative in the service and programming we deliver and the ways we bring our Hilton hospitality to life. While some of our trademark offerings vary from one brand to the next — such as the signature warm DoubleTree Cookie at check-in, the Embassy Suites Manager’s Reception, or Tru by Hilton’s “Top It” breakfast bar — our Team Members never waver. They are the kindest, most compassionate and hospitable people you will find in our business, and they are empowered to do whatever it takes to show our customers how much we value them.

Then there is what everyone thinks of when they hear the word “innovation” — the data, technology and digital side of things. While our product and service are critical pieces of the equation, so too is technology. That’s why we are focused on offerings like Connected Room, which is the first truly mobile-centric hotel room that allows our customers to do everything — from controlling the lights and temperature, to ordering room service, to customizing the art on the walls — from the palm of their hand. This is a unique source of value that, when combined with fantastic products and unmatched service, makes Hilton truly stand out.

And tying it all together is the most important piece of the puzzle — the people and culture that bring all of this to life. By fostering an environment where people are encouraged to think differently, where they know you are invested in their success and that it is okay to fail sometimes, and where they have the support they need to dust themselves off and try again, you build the kind of company that can stand the test of time. A place where people are proud to work and commit to something bigger than themselves.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?

At the end of the day, travel is hard. It often involves some combination of planes, trains and automobiles, and any number of things can go off course before a customer ever arrives at one of our hotels. The end result is that travel is inconsistent and full of partially met expectations. It tends to feel impersonal and unfamiliar, like you are on this journey alone and there is nobody looking out for you or helping you connect with the things that matter to you. It has also been largely the same industry for the better part of the last century, with conventions and practices that have historically “worked” for the industry but may no longer serve customers as well as they did in the past.

So travel is inconsistent. It’s hard. In some ways, it feels like it’s time for an evolution of what we have come to expect. And yet, our customers travel for some of the most important moments of their lives — those moments when they need to be at their best. That paradox is something we cannot overlook. By offering a truly valuable experience — one that is distinctive, high-quality, consistent and branded — we help our customers see that Hilton is different. They can depend on us, wherever and however their travels may take them. We are looking out for them.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

The hospitality industry is at a pivotal moment in time. The world is moving faster than ever before, and with disruptive forces like digitization, globalization and automation transforming business as we know it, hospitality — like many industries — is at risk of commoditization. If there is nothing to distinguish one company or brand from another, then why would customers pay a premium? It is simple — they wouldn’t. That is why we are investing in innovation and customer-centricity like never before, so we can stay firmly ahead of the disruptive forces that want to unseat our industry. The standard we hold ourselves to is that customers say “it just feels different at a Hilton.”

This is not just for the benefit of customers and Hilton. If we are successful, we impact lives and communities. Think about it this way: over the last 100 years, Hilton alone has served 3 billion guests, employed 10 million Team Members and contributed $1 trillion in economic impact. If we were to let our industry, or ourselves, get disrupted, all of that impact — and all of our future positive impact — would be lost.

Can you share five examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?

The thing I love about consumers is that they are never 100% predictable, so the things we “know” to be true today will almost certainly evolve over time. That said, if I were to peg five travel trends that are definitely not going anywhere any time soon, they would be:

  1. Experiences will continue to trump things. Customers are spending more money on travel and less on material goods — obviously a trend that is good for our business. Our award-winning Hilton Honors loyalty program is leaning into this in a big way with its new Experiences Platform, which lets customers cash in hard-earned points for once-in-a-lifetime experiences that they can’t get anywhere else.
  2. It has to feel personal. There is no “one size fits all” approach to hospitality. Customers are increasingly looking for truly personalized, one-of-a-kind experiences that feel as though they’re made just for them. This is why it is essential to create and foster a culture that is focused on people serving people — one where team members are inspired and empowered to go above and beyond for customers. Add to this the fact that customers are more and more willing to share their data (within reason), and we have a prime opportunity to truly understand who our customers are, what they like and why they’re traveling — and to do something positive with that information.
  3. Seamless integration of physical and digital is critical. Travelers will always look for that outstanding travel experience — the hotel employee who made them feel extra well cared for, or that knockout property, or a “can’t miss” view. At the same time, our society is becoming more digital in everything we do, and it is important that we use technology to help digitally connect customers to those physical components of their guest stay. For example, we offer a digital check-in experience for those guests who want it, where they can check-in, pick their room, request an upgrade and unlock their door all through our Hilton Honors app. Not only does this offer our guests an option to check-in when and how they like, it also frees up our team members to focus even more on what they do best: delivering exceptional hospitality.
  4. Physical design is more important than ever. Customers have a discerning eye for design, and they are increasingly telling us that they want their hotels to feel less homogeneous. There will always be a place for brand standards and consistency, but you will see more hotels getting creative with how they reflect their communities in their design.
  5. Customers want to spend money with brands that share their values. According to a survey of 72,000 Hilton guests, social, environmental and ethical considerations are central to their buying preferences, especially guests younger than 25 years old. We have always been focused on investing in the people and communities we serve, and last year we laid out ambitious new goals to significantly increase our impact by 2030 by cutting our environmental footprint in half and doubling our social impact investments.

You are a “travel insider.” How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

My perfect vacation experience is one that feels different. While the definition of “different” varies from one person to the next (and sometimes, one trip to the next), it starts with consistency and reliability in the sense that I am getting what I expect with no negative surprises. If you have positive surprises, I’m all for it. I want to feel that there is a great culture among the hotel team — that they have a service orientation, and they feel proud and inspired by what they do. I tend to be pretty informal, but I still want to feel like any potential friction is eliminated from the experience. I want it to feel easy and stress-free, with a personalized touch here or there. To me, that type of “different” can make or break a trip — whether it’s my own travel, or that of our guests.

Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? If you could start a movement to bring the most amount of good to the most people, what would that be?

One of the things I feel very passionately about is that it is important to start with questions, not solutions. Most people probably never think about it, but all too often we prescribe an answer without fully understanding what we are trying to address. Customers are telling us something, but we are only hearing half the story. Everyone wants to be heard and valued, and that is why our leadership team at Hilton is deeply focused on changing how we think about solutions — not just for the sake of the business, but for the people we are here to serve.

For example, our customers have long told us that they care about sustainability, and together we have made great progress over the last decade — including reducing carbon emissions and waste by 30% and energy and water consumption by 20%, saving more than $1 billion in operating efficiencies. That said, we are always looking for ways to help our guests make their stay more sustainable. By asking questions like, “Are we making it easy enough for them to implement sustainable actions during their stay? Are there more meaningful ways guests would like sustainability to be a part of their experience with us?” By asking questions like these, we are able to better understand our customers and offer the solutions that actually work for them. A great example is Connected Room, which among other benefits, allows hotels to power down devices like the TV, HVAC and lights when guests are not physically in their rooms (about 70% of the time), dramatically reducing energy usage.

On a broader level, I think this type of approach could bring a lot of good to the world. Instead of trying to force policy or economic solutions because they seem like the “best” or “easiest” or “fastest” approach to an issue, let’s get to the heart of that issue first. Maybe it’s something simpler than we ever imagined, or maybe the issue we think we have is not really the issue at all.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I don’t personally have a big social media presence, but you can follow the latest from Hilton on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube.



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Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.